Why are the Arizona Cardinals playing their worst football of the year?

DETROIT -- Quarterback Kyler Murray stood at the podium after Sunday's beatdown by the Detroit Lions and was insistent.

This season, he said, is not ending up like last year's did. In 2020, the Arizona Cardinals started 5-2 but finished 3-6 and out of the playoffs. They lost two win-and-you're-in games during the final two weeks of that season.

"No, not at all. Not at all. Not at all," Murray said. "This isn't nowhere near where we were last year -- and we're not going to allow it to be so."

Arizona is still 10-4 following its 30-12 upset to the lowly Lions, who had just one win coming into Sunday. The Cardinals still sit in first place in the NFC West but need to right their ship -- and do it soon -- because, like it or not, this year is starting to look a lot like last year.

Sunday's loss was the Cardinals' second in a row and fourth in their past seven games. They started 7-0 and are 3-4 since.

For myriad reasons, Arizona is playing its worst football of the year, but three things stand out:

  • The Cardinals struggle at home. The skid started on Thursday Night Football, at home, against Green Bay in Week 8, and has included losses to the Carolina Panthers and Los Angeles Rams. The Cardinals are 3-3 at home, compared to 7-1 on the road, but have lost their past three at State Farm Stadium.

  • DeAndre Hopkins is hurt. Having him on the field Sunday in Detroit might not have necessarily resulted in a win, but it would've changed how the Lions played Arizona.

  • Pressure. The Cardinals can't seem to show up in big games, whether that's in prime time or in games with major implications, such as a playoff berth. They're 1-4 on Thursday and Monday nights under coach Kliff Kingsbury and, thus far, 0-4, in playoff-clinching games.

They have three weeks to get their season back on track.

Sunday's loss dropped them to the NFC's fourth seed. That means at least one home game, coming in the wild-card round. But with the Indianapolis Colts coming to Arizona on Saturday for a Christmas Night game on national TV, a trip to Dallas following that and then the regular-season finale at home against the Seattle Seahawks, there's a lot left to be decided.

After Sunday's game, the Cardinals pulled the curtain back a tad on what happened to a team that was once considered the best in football, had owned the top seed in the NFC and was a clear-cut favorite to win the NFC West.

"Obviously, we didn't come prepared at all," Murray said

He also added: "They played hard. It was a physical game. I wish we knew it was going to be. Like I said, I don't know what happened today. We just didn't come ready to play."

Linebacker Jordan Hicks called it a "very uncharacteristic game of what's gotten us to this point."

Tight end Zach Ertz said Sunday felt like "a game where you just got your butts kicked."

And Kingsbury said the Lions came out Sunday with a better sense of urgency than the Cardinals, a trait that won't help Arizona finish strong if it can't fix it.

"We've got to work at it," he said. "We've got to talk about it and face it. All of us have got to look at ourselves in the mirror and figure out why it was like that because that hadn't been us all year."

Hicks doesn't think the season has gotten away from the Cardinals, especially with three weeks left, but Ertz was more cautious in his approach to the homestretch.

"We can't let this thing spiral, per se," Ertz said. "Momentum is real in the NFL, good and bad, and we've got to find a way to flip it."

The question the Cardinals will face, both when they sit in front of a camera or in their meeting rooms this week is: Why is this happening?

Starting strong and cooling down has been a trait of Kingsbury in the NFL. Arizona started 3-3-1 in 2019 and then finished 2-7. Then last year's tailspin happened, and now this year's is in progress.

Players stuck to their motto of "one week at a time" and going "1-0 each week," which has been their standard response to questions about the future or their records throughout the season. To stop their current spiral, however, it'll take more than that.

"You evaluate the processes," Ertz said. "Is the process good? If the process is good and it's just a poor result, then you stick with it. If the process needs to be evaluated, you evaluate it and make some changes. I think the process that we have is a good process. I don't think we need to go out there and reinvent the wheel.

"But at the end of the day, we got to play better on Sunday. It's up to the players. I mean, the coaching schemes are there. They're the same ones that we were freaking rolling with. So, we just got to find a way to make plays."

That could mean "going back in the lab," Hicks said.

"You do more," Hicks said. "You study harder, you work after practice, you detail the game plan. Guys got to come in and make sure that the game plan is fully set and then, at the end of the day, we got to execute."

Hicks called it an "unacceptable loss."

Kingsbury hopes Sunday was a wake-up call.

Murray said it said left an ugly taste.

Arizona believes its goals are still in reach, Hicks said, but, he added, that those goals have to be the Cardinals' focus for the final three games.

"It's just about locking in and playing up to our capabilities and screw everything else pretty much," Murray said. "We have to be how we were at the beginning of the season and in the middle of season, as well.

"But we just got to lock in and be better."